Strings On Shelter Island

Hard to believe that the Perlman Music Program will be coming up soon on a silver anniversary. This unique classical music venture, which began on the grounds of the old Boys Harbor camp off Three Mile Harbor Road, made its debut about the same time as The Independent, and was regularly featured in summer issues.

The Perlman Music Camp, as it was originally called, was the dream of Toby Perlman, a musician and teacher, who enlisted her famous violinist husband, Itzhak Perlman, in gathering top-notch colleagues to mentor young string players.

The camp became an immediate and spectacular attraction for two weeks during the summer, drawing classical music lovers to risk the splatters of a mud-covered field with no apparent parking rules in order to sit under a semi-protective tent, listening to pieces from the traditional classical repertoire (it would be a while before late modernist works were regularly performed).

In just a couple of years, however, it was apparent that Toby’s homey midsummer night’s dream needed a bigger and more accommodating home.

Fast forward to 2000, when the expanded summer concert series moved to Shelter Island Heights, and Perlman Music Camp became Perlman Music Program, with refurbished and newly built permanent buildings that could be used throughout the year. Two weeks became three, then more, but the program would continue to be informed by Toby’s originating idea — that a supportive atmosphere for young musicians should not be all work and no play.

Toby’s dream would counter the all-too-familiar nightmare of young talented musicians pushed by parents, teachers, and themselves to practice, practice, practice. Where was the joy that should accompany instruction? Where the social interaction that would remind kids they were kids? Where the pacing that would provide youngsters with something other than intense rehearsal time?

Enter Toby’s dream.

At PMP, indoor and outdoor recreational activities are an integral part of the program, along with simple hang-out time. Staff coach, guide, encourage, and listen, not drill. Students are encouraged to see themselves as members of a nurturing community rather than as soloists in competition with one another.

A tradition in this regard has been Maestro Perlman’s welcoming of the students by way of his (now famous) chicken barbecues, not to mention jokes. As for nearby Sunset Beach, it’s gloriously there for swimming, sailing, foot dangling. Or not. Friendships have been made at PMP and, down the line, even a marriage or two.

It was inevitable, of course, that the more success PMP enjoyed, the more competitive the admission process would become for “The Littles,” as Toby fondly calls the 12 to 18-year-olds who are at the heart of the program.

Kept to approximately 40, slightly up from earlier days, the boys and girls selected for PMP come from countries around the world, having applied by way of recommendations and videos, each one of which is personally reviewed by Itzhak Perlman and his assistants.

It’s a difficult process, and not just because so many applicants are incredibly talented.

Complicating the process is that Toby considers The Littles not just young musicians, but youngsters. That means ensuring that a 12-year-old, say, has an age peer and is not alone among older adolescents. It also means that sections are balanced — a set number of violins, cellos, pianos, flutes, and so on. And it means that gender, ethnicity, and country of origin are factored into the mix.

Thus, space is limited: once accepted, a Little can stay on until the age of 18.

Some Littles become alums, and audiences are doubly blessed not only with performances by Littles in workshops but with concerts by alums and faculty, as well. A highlight is the benefit choral concert each year, led by Choral Director Patrick Romano, who elicits spontaneous cries of joy when introduced.

As Toby has said, everyone plays voice, the ultimate instrument.

The Chamber Music Workshop Kick-off concert is Friday, June 1, at 7:30 PM. Chamber Music Master Classes, June 8, 12, 13, 14 at 7 PM. Celebration Concerts: June 15, June 16, at 2:30 and 7:30 PM. The Annual Summer Benefit this year will take place July 27 at 6 PM.

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